The Americanization of St. Patrick's Day

The Americanization of St. Patrick's Day

Tourists attending the St. Patrick's Festival in Dublin last year bring a distinctively Nordic look to the Irish celebration. (Photo courtesy St. Patrick's Festival and Failte Ireland)
Tourists attending the St. Patrick's Festival in Dublin last year bring a distinctively Nordic look to the Irish celebration. (Photo courtesy St. Patrick's Festival and Failte Ireland)

By Barry Abisch

Provided by WorldNow

It might be said that St. Patrick's Day is an American invention.

The first parade anywhere marking the Irish feast day took place in 1762 -- not in Ireland, but in New York City. This year, parades are being held in places as diverse as Fargo, N. D. and Jackson, Miss. Americans will send approximately 9 million St. Patrick's Day greeting cards. An Irish beer company is petitioning the U. S. Congress to make March 17 a national holiday.  It turns out that corned beef and cabbage is an American collaboration. And even Ireland has pretty much Americanized its own celebration of St. Patrick's Day.

So what do green beer and leprechauns have to do with the St. Patrick whose feast day the Roman Catholic Church will observe with prayers on March 14?  Very little.

It is a measure of just how much St. Patrick's Day has become a part of American culture, distinct from its religious roots, that in many cities, Irish-American parade organizers have ignored the requests of local bishops and are holding their parades on March 17, which this year falls during Holy Week.

Catholic rules prohibit such celebrations during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. The U.S. Council of Bishops set this year's official celebration of the Feast of St. Patrick on March 14. The bishops asked organizers across the country to reschedule parades and other St. Patrick's Day activities to preserve the dignity of Holy Week.

Parade sponsors in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and some other cities agreed to the change. But in many places, including Boston and New York, both cities with large Irish-American populations, parades are taking place as scheduled, on March 17, the Monday after Palm Sunday. Even New York Archbishop Edward Egan will participate, viewing his city's biggest-anywhere parade from the steps of famous St. Patrick's Cathedral.

In Columbus, Ohio, where the sponsoring Shamrock Club turned down a request by the local bishop to shift the date of the local parade, club president Mark Dempsy explained the decision to celebrate on March 17. "It's not a sin to celebrate your Irish culture," Dempsy told The Associated Press. "Actually, you're born Irish first, and then you're baptized Catholic."

A lot of Americans share that Irish culture. The U. S. Census Bureau estimates that there are some 36 million people who can trace their roots to Ireland. That's about 12 percent of the total population.

But there also is truth to the saying that, on March 17, "everyone is Irish." According to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, nearly 83 percent of Americans plan to wear something green on St. Patrick's Day and 46 percent are planning a more extensive celebration of the holiday. Two-thirds of young adults -- 18 to 24 year olds -- expect to participate. All told, Americans will spend $3.64 billion celebrating the holiday.

With that kind of cross-cultural participation, even a mid-western city such as Fargo, where only 7 percent of the people report sharing an Irish heritage, can muster up sufficient blarney to stage a parade which last year drew 60 marching groups.

All of which leaves unanswered the question, "Who was St. Patrick?"

As would be expected after 1,500 years, part of the answer is lost to time or clouded by mythology.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says St. Patrick was born in Scotland in 387 and died in 460 or 461, although other sources are less certain about the years and more generally agree that he probably was born somewhere in the north of Britain. He spent six years in Ireland as a slave, before escaping to study as a priest in France. Many years later, he was named bishop of Ireland and returned to the island as a missionary, almost immediately confronting the pagan priests at a time when the Druids dominated Irish belief. Patrick's success at establishing Christianity throughout Ireland led to his designation as a patron saint of the Irish people.

Beyond the facts, there is legend. One myth, that St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland, is unlikely. There have been no snakes in Ireland since the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years before Patrick arrived on the scene. Another myth at least has a ring of plausibility: St. Patrick is said to have used the trefoil shape of the shamrock to teach the concept of the Christian Trinity. However, leprechauns are not even a part of the St. Patrick mythology, but are added to the celebration to make it seem somehow more Irish to celebrants who are not.

In contrast with the festive, secular holiday popular in the U.S.,  Ireland until recently followed a more subdued -- or saintly -- approach. St. Patrick's Day was observed in Ireland by church attendance, following by music, dancing -- and a traditional family meal of bacon and cabbage.

Although cabbage has long been a staple of Irish cooking, the Web site notes that until modern times beef was available in Ireland only to the wealthy. Corned beef and cabbage is an American dish. The Humble Housewife -- a blogger named Deborah who lives in Leinster, Ireland -- relates an oft-told tale of Irish immigrants in New York City acquiring a taste for corned beef from their Jewish neighbors, then using it as a substitute for bacon in family recipes.

But not even the Irish themselves could resist the festive allure of a celebration that takes St. Patrick's Day beyond its religious origins. During the 1970s, Ireland revoked laws which required that pubs remain closed on March 17.  Then, in 1995, the Irish tourism agencies seized the day, establishing a weeklong St. Patrick's Festival to entice tourists to the island. An estimated 1 million visitors are expected to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Dublin this year.

Some of them might even be Irish.